Monday, July 25, 2011

Red, White & Blue

If you have seen this director's previous U.S.-available effort, "The Living & the Dead," you'll know the drill- everything that can go wrong does, and his films navigate the uncomfortable grey areas of the human psyche. Being a fan of Simon Rumley's "The Living & the Dead," I decided to check it out, despite similarly mixed reviews and a nagging feeling in the back of my gut.

Boy, this film is brutal. If Rumley meant to outdo the violence of nihilistic tone of his previous movie, he succeeded. All the main characters make uniformly bad and immoral decisions, and all of them suffer for it. The movie starts out with a sleazy feel, with promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller) getting into bed with random strangers at a nightclub.

Then she meets Nate (Noah Taylor,) who got a honorable discharge from Iraq. Although he tips her off almost immediately that he has a history of torturing and killing animals, Erica is drawn to him, mostly because he is the first man in a long time who doesn't seem to be after sex.

The film then puts a third character into the mix, Franki (Marc Senter,) who is taking care of his sick mother Ellie (Sally Jackson. whose kind and sympathetic character reminds the viewer of Kate Fahy's Nancy in "The Living and the Dead." Franki has a rock band going with his various buds, and hates his father.

The family is thrilled when Ellie goes into remission, but tragedy lurks just around the corner, and Erica's crime has unexpected repercussions. Gandhi's advice, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind," seems to apply here

Like Todd Field's "In the Bedroom," revenge only hurts those who practice it, and no one seems to get much gratification out of it (except for one, who is basically a sociopath.) But even the sociopath is capable of compassion,, which makes the dynamic between the characters all the more puzzling.

I love Rumley's style, with his moral ambiguity, interesting cinematography, and tense situations. But "Red, White, & Blue" has scenes and gaps in storytelling that make it seem less professional. The music during the torture scenes, for instance, are discordant and not in a good way, like taking bad inspiration from "Psycho."

Some scenes open awkwardly in the middle of the action, and end just as uncomfortably. An example is when Erica is almost raped by a co-worker. The beginning shot of the scene takes place in the middle of the attack, and Nate lingers for a moment before hitting the attacker with a hammer (off-screen.)

The next scene shows Nate approaching and sitting next to a teary Erica. But happened to the would-be rapist. Is he killed (and his body disposed of?) Arrested? Taken to the hospital? He disappears without a trace. There are several scenes like that, which leave the viewer rather confused.

Some of the dialogue is rather stiff and drawn out, and several lines sound alien from the way or anyone I know speak. The acting is good, however, whith unknown actors (Amanda Fuller, Marc Senter) turning in capable performances. Noah Taylor, who you may know as the teenage version of the pianist David Helfgott in the biopic "Shine," does creepy and brutal nicely. And the last scene of violence goes above and beyond over the top, amounting to one of the most disgusting things I've seen in a long time.

Should you see it? Despite panning reviews, it's not 'only an exploitation film.' Although it is a bit rough at times. it has a sense of style, and has Rumley's essential humanity, light amongst the darkness. Go see it if you have a strong stomach, and make sure to watch "The Living and the Dead" too, which has classy Gothic atmosphere and more involving, likable characters.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Angela (1995)

Movies are hardly ever made about mentally disturbed children. I think it's because people envision childhood as some kind of Eden before they grow up, and life gets messy- people get jobs, come of age, and possibly lose their minds- but before that, life is rosy and carefree. Angela, a dark dreamy film from first-time director Rebecca Miller, proves just how wrong they are.he eponymous character (MIranda Rhyne,) who could be diagnosed with any number of psychological ailments, has moved to a ramshackle house with her parents and younger sister Ellie (Charlotte Eve Blythe.)

The girls' mother, Mae, seems to be Bipolar- dark moods come over her unexpectedly and her daughter's would do anything in their power to make her happy. Solemn pre-teen Angela, however, is having internal struggles of her own. Obsessed with religious imagery and sin, she is visited by Lucifer, a pale winged man who tempts her with promises of a better life. When young Ellie sets the curtains on fire, Angela puts her in a protective circle surrounded by dolls to purge her of her sins and save her from eternal damnation.

All right, I'll be downright controversial here- this movie shows how damaging extremist religion can be for children. It is hard to argue (but some people will, anyway) that young children shouldn't be troubled by these things. By the time they can read 'are you saved' slips, even those not born of fundamentalist families will wonder what lengths they should take to follow the right path. This and a chemically unbalanced mind tend to take these things to an obsessive level.

Okay, now that I've offended two-thirds of he audience and driven them away, I'll get to the technical aspects of the film. The sound, as you might of hard, is really bad. This may or may not only apply to the Netflix Instant version of the film, but the actor's mouthes move discordently with the dialogue so that you hear the sound effect ten seconds after the said action occurs. For a low-budget movie, the acting is pretty good, and the little girls do decent jobs. There is some child nudity, which could be artistic or offensive depending on your point of view, but bothered me a little bit- can't these girls afford bathing suits?

I liked Peter Facinelli as the devil- sly rather than overtly threatening, and easy to confuse with a good angel (but watch out for those coven hooves.) Lastly was the sudden, tragic ending, whose implications were more disturbing the more I looked into them. If you like arty, deliberately paced dramas that fly under the radar, this could be a good choice for you. It has a moving message about the psychological vulnerability of children, especially unstable ones, and what happens when they go unnoticed (Rated NR.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

28 Days Later

28 Days Later might be one of the last non-sequel zombie movies, excluding George A. Romero. Oh, and it does take the zombie film mighty serious, not only using the plot line for flesh-eating chaos but for the depths of human depravity. And are those zombies fast. They do not come at a slowly labored trudge a la' Shaun of the Dead, but go sprinting- not running, sprinting(1)- toward the victim, roaring and vomiting blood. Sound unpleasant? You don't know the half of it.

During the beginning of the movie, two members of my family started pointed out all they deemed inaccurate in the film. "Yeah, like those corpses wouldn't stink over a few days." "I love it how there are so few cars in a crammed city." Blah, blah, blah. I was stupefied. It's a zombie movie, people. And unless, like my brother, you seriously consider the possibility of the zombie apocalypse in our lifetimes, complete and utter realism isn't really what you're looking for in a film like this.

So, anyway. The film begins in an laboratory, where animal rights activists who accidentally unleash a virus, called rage, freeing a caged chimpanzee. The peciluair primate proceeds to dispatch one, who immediately turns zombie. Sooner or later, they all die. The prologue is somewhat corny, with shrieking monkeys and dark corners, and the viewer shouldn't pay much mind to it if they want to maintain a serious view of the movie.

The next scene shows Jim (Cillian Murphy,) the protagonist, lying in a hospital room in a dissipated room. He leaves puzzled and unsure if he is dreaming, and, to his astonishment, discovers that all of London is in the same condition. He has several high-speed encounters with the walking dead a is thrown into the care of Mark and Selena (Naomie Harris,) two survivors. An unfortunate fate befalls Mark (poor guy doesn't have a lot of screen time,) they pick up a father and daughter (Brendan Gleesan and Megan Burns) and head toward a army base, where they were promised safety via radio and where their 'saviors' may not have the purest intentions.

The movie is a steady mix of good, bad, and sometimes inane. One of the plot lines that fall into the latter varieties is the relationship between Jim, and Selena. In the first twenty-five minutes, Selena tells Jim that 'she will kill him if she has to.' Now, quick, guess... (a She will kill him, (b They will remain platonic friends, or (c they will hook up. Possible? Uh, yes. Predictable? Hell yeah. Selena is kind of a lame character who screams forced female empowerment. My favorite was the teenage girl, Hannah (Megan Burns,) who was vulnerable but strong, and kept herself together despite tremendous losses without being 'tough.' The scene where she plays mind games with one of her human aggressors and watches him turn to butter is a joy to watch.

The strongest assets are the cinematography, which is flashy, tense, and reminescent of Rennt Lola Rennt, the performances, and the undercurrent of philosophy running throughout the film. The gang mentality of the soldiers is shown in their bullying of Private Jones (Leo Bill,) and their taunts against one another. Are these he kind of guys the jerks you avoid at the coffee shop, or are the people you like and admire, who become something darker under stress? After all, many people respect the military, but who knows what crimes some of them are committing over in Afghanistan or Iraq?

But I honestly think zombies have hokey overtones and work better as comedy, and Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead work better as movies. And yes, it is a efficent piece of work, not really as frightening as interesting, and as a social commentary. But "Scary as Hell"? I don't believe so (Rated R.)

*1) Reference to Zombieland*

Trailer Not Available

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vera Drake

Mike Leigh's 2004 effort, Vera Drake, is sure to be controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. rather than shock value (and the blood and guts of franchises such as Saw and Hostel,) Vera Drake takes a hot-button topic and looks at it it from a much-maligned perspective. It may cause you discomfort or make you angry, but it's hard to deny that the film is well made.

The eponymous Vera is a jolly 1950's housewife who lives in post-war Britain and works cleaning other people's homes. She is the proud mother to two adult children, sarcastic Sid (Daniel Mays) and excruciatingly shy Ethel (Alex Kelly) and wants to find a eligible bachelor for her isolated daughter. She is happily married to moustached mechanic George (Richard Graham).

In secret, Vera is an abortionist, terminating women's pregnancies for no pay. She uses the same soothing rhetoric for every incident and is not once caught. The procedure is relatively clean and safe, and as far as she is concerned she does no wrong. I didn't always like Vera. She was blind to the implications of her acts, cheery to a fault. Yet she always tries to do the right thing. I think something horrible happened in her past, but it was never fully explained. Yet, life goes on.

Vera and George find a possible "eligible bachelor," Reg (Eddie Marsan) an introvert highly affected by the war. Vera continues her operations, with women who have been put into contact with her by Lily (Ruth Sheen) who has untrustworthy motives. But when a near tragedy occurs, Vera is put out in the open and ages ten years in a strenuous couple of days.

Possibly more interesting than Vera are her kids, Ethel and Sid. Ethel holds herself hunched and quiet, with zero self-esteem. She meets her match in Reg, who seems as unsure of the courtship as she is. I wasn't quite sure where their relationship would go. Sid and his friend Ronny (Leo Bill) discuss post war issues and try to score a dance at a party, and Sid is the one to reasonably question his mother when the doody hits the fan. The film has a strong sense of place. A rape scene occurs, and it is handled tastefully (as tastefully as a rape can be), Imelda Staunton gives a great performance, going from a cheery confident woman to a slumped person who can barely drag her feet across the floor.

Vera is not a liberal Wonder Woman, a superhero who keeps her powers of cheerful strength no matter what. She is vulnerable and fallible, and she can be and will be broken. But somehow, I wasn't as involved, the second time I watched it, as I could have been. I think the director was pushing me too hard with the tragedy of it all, with what a great person Vera is. That never helps. You've got to hand it to Sid, though. With everyone else referring to the operations as taking care of "trouble" and "problems," Sid offers the first humanizing word: "babies."

Friday, January 21, 2011

El Bola (Pellet)

Shortly into El Bola, the twelve-year-old protagonist overhears a woman at his family's shop tell his father that 'if we were Pablo's age, we wouldn't have any problems.' If only that were true. Not only is that false on general terms (cartoonist Bill Watterson on said that "People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children,") but Pablo is living with an unbearable load for anyone, in a household where breathing could get one beaten.

El Bolais a full-blooded film about child abuse, yet lacking cheap shock value (Joan Crawford smudged with face cream, screaming "NO WIRE HANGERS!" while her little daughter cowers, comes to mind.) Instead of a larger than life (not to say over the top) performance as the crazy parent that wins a Razzle, this movie concentrates on the children affected, nay, not only that, but directs them well, which is hard to do.

Sad-eyed Juan José Ballesta, as Pablo, is the emotional center of the film. Pablo calls himself 'pellet,' named after a little ball he keeps for luck, which doesn't seem to do him much good. He harbors an almost doglike desire for a close friend, not the group of kids he plays a dangerous game on the train tracks with, further jeopardizing his safety, This security is found with Alfredo, the rough-around-the-edges son of a tattooist, who doesn't take to him at first when he finds his pleas for friendship desperate-bordering-on-the-creepy. They bond a little quickly at an amusement park, but it takes us to the main conflict in the film, which is when Pablo's sadistic pop Mariano finds his aloneness threatened, and tries to drive other people out of his life

Alfredo's family's a wonder, to a kid who has never known a homelife without violence and painful punishment. A Liberal, playful bunch, they talk about just about anything and joke and laugh at the dinner table, a far cry from Pablo's family, with his mother yelling at his incontinent grandmother and his father constantly comparing Pablo to their other son who died in a car crash. But Alfredo's life is far from perfect. His father has a temper as well. His gay godfather is dying from AIDS, and he isn't allowed to see him due to the state he's in.

The amazing thing about this film, which won the Spanish Academy Awards, and the child actors who have chosen to work in it, is the naturalness. The kids are not dumbed down, nor made into pretentious little douches who must read the dictionary every night before bed. They're living, breathing, thinkinghumans (I'll leave the thinking part in underline, for future filmmakers to pay close attention to. They talk about death, about sickness, about food and phallic tattoos (Can you get one? I don't know, and I suspect they don't either.) The dialogue seemed rarely scripted, and very natural.

So what? I won't give a four-star rating, because, well, the character development isn't quite strong enough, but it's certainly a impressive debut with kids, who, now that they're grown, are on the way to becoming great actors. It's very much worth watching. The question is, are you up for it? (Rated NR. Although it is rather perversely catagorized as a 'father-son children & family movie' on Netflix, it is definitely not for kids.)

Trailer Not Available

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Me and Orson Welles

You needn't know much about Orson Welles to see (or like) this movie. Nor do you need to devour Shakespeare. As an unsophisticated and non-well-read viewer, I found Me & Orson Wellesto be an enjoyable and unpretentious period piece, by Richard Linklater, the director of the also enjoyable, unpretentious, but more comically oriented The School Of Rock. But now, instead of the manic Jack Black, Linklater has cast Zac Efron in the lead, a controversial decision considering many non-twelve-year-old girls consider him a pretty boy unfit for anything past High School Musical. But don't worry, the guy doesn't seem limited to teenybopper franchises, and he does fine here, in a film he rather self-importantly deemed the first of his roles he was actually interested in.

He is backed up by virtual unknown Christian McKay, Eddie Marsan, and talented but typecast Leo Bill, who is forever willing to play the nerd, misfit, psychotic, or pervert. Efron plays Richard Samuels, an ambitious and slightly naive 'almost eighteen-year-old' living in new York City in 1937, who regularly skips school, much to the chagrin of his disgruntled mother, and gets a part in the Mercury Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" after publicly singing an awful song about cereal. Womanizer Joe Cotten (James Tupper) and womanizer-in-training Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill,) both of which have their minds on only one thing (and it's not theater) show him the ropes as well as Assistant Sonja (Claire Danes,) who Richard promptly develops a crush on.

The show revolves around keeping Orson happy, a self-obsessed terror set on his own talent. Richard won't be being paid. You must not argue. The actors laugh as a knee-jerk reaction at Orson's unfunny jokes. What does he earn for all this? "The chance to be sprayed by Orson's spit." Why does Richard keep the job at all? He has hope he can make it in the acting business. It's better than going to school. Sonja might be a big part of it. Norman and Joe classily comment that 'every man in the show wants to get into her pants,' then make a bet- the first one get five dollars. It is easy to guess that Sonja will be furious and broken-hearted that Richard made the bet, but it doesn't happen, which highlights the unexpected turns the movie takes.

The rest of the movie concentrates on the quirks of the cast and Orson's ego, as well as Richard's realization that whatever turn the show takes,he wants to be a 'part of it all.' This is well done, except for occasional bad line. For instance? "What's it like to be a beautiful woman?" Richard randomly asks Sonja. *Wince* What gutter did they pull that from? The only saving grace is that Sonja receives it as a bad line. Zac Efron starts out rather awkward in the first five minutes, delivering such off-kilter lines as 'you play with real feeling.' The heavily romanticized dialogue just doesn't feel natural, and it's a relief when the lines become smoother and wittier.

Christian McKay plays Orson Welles as perfectionistic, hard-headed, and childish. When he gets in a fight with his actors, he hollars at the top of his lungs, trademark spit spurting out of his mouth, "I am Orson Welles! And every single one of you stands as a adjinct to my vision!" Mm-kay... His unfailingly reasonable agent John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) tries to get through to him, but the bottem line is nothing that Orson Welles doesn't want to do will even be brought to the table. He is great character, and you see something sympathetic in him, then he throws you for a double loop. Me & Orson Welles is a historical film for people who don't have the time and patience for historical films, and establishes Zac Efron as an actor worthy of some respect (Rated PG-13.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

At the beginning of The Men Who Stare At Goats, a confiding message beforehand says that 'more of this is true than you might think.' Maybe so, maybe not so much, but it's an entertaining black comedy, involving guns, drugs, and goats based on the also apparently true memoir of the same name by John Ronson. The film, given only lukewarm consideration by the critics, takes very near to awkward dives between lightness, very dark humor, and compassionate drama, turns out unscathed, if not exactly on top.

Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor,) a journalist, is dumbstruck when his wife has a revelation over the fragility of life after the sudden death of a co-worker. Instead of taking an Eat, Pray, Love expedition, leaving her baffled husband to go to India and so on, she dumps him, apparently deciding life is too short to spend time in his company any longer. After a rather childish tantrum where he breaks dishes and yells at her and her one-armed boyfriend, Bob goes to equally childish lengths to impress her.

"I'm in Iraq, covering war stories," he says in a comfortable American hotel. "I've seen things you shouldn't. "Bang-bang-bang!" He kicks the head of the bed and exclaims, "I've got to go." He then decides that it would be best if he actually did some research there, forgetting just walking into a war-torn country with a camera is not worth it to win back a girl who's clearly gotten over him.

Then he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney,) who's unlike anyone he's ever met- impulsive, smart, and completely convinced the minority he follows is in the right. Sound like somebody you know...? And he says he's a psychic spy, trained by the millitary to read thoughts, drive blind folded, and dissapate clouds with the power of his mind. Hmm.

This takes Bob back to meeting Gus Lacey (Stephen Root,) a member of the same group Lyn joined that he interviewed for a piece in the paper. Gus lives with his who-knows-how-old mother, who serves him drinks, and speaks of his military job in the New Earth Army whimsically. "We were trained to kill animals," he says. "With our minds, that is correct." Bob is shocked. He is serious, in that deadpan way Stephen Root is good at. Gus then shows Bob a video, to prove it, of himself telekinetically killing his pet hamster. What Bob sees is... the hamster acting wonky, yes, but hardly dying.

Lyn takes Bob on a sort of adventure (if you can call it that,) thanks in part to random fate and in part to Lyn's total belief in his psychic powers. Finally they find the New Earth Army base and meet stoned out Bill Jango (Jeff Bridges,) who ran the place for some time, and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey,) who took over. Interspersed with the journey are flashbacks so you have met the characters before you actually met them.

In the end, The Men Who Stare at Goats (with it's abundance of deliberate quirky-isms) is not an epic achievement, but it is funny and witty, and though a streak of oh-so-dark humor pervades, admirably entertaining. In this day and age, I think we kind of need New Earth Warriors, who strive to 'fight without killing,' minus those poor goats. You'll see what I mean (Rated R.)